Defensive Player Ladder

Defensive Player Ladder: Q&A with Sidney Moncrief, the NBA's first Defensive Player of the Year

As T.J. McConnell enters the Top 5, Hall of Famer Sidney Moncrief talks top defenders - from his era and now - in this week's ranking of the best defensive players.

Five-time All-Star Sidney Moncrief was one of the best defenders in NBA history.

The NBA began its honorary All-Defensive Team selections back in 1969, which enabled folks to recognize such defensive stalwarts as Bill Russell, Dave DeBusschere, Jerry Sloan, Gus Johnson, Nate Thurmond, Paul Silas, Norm Van Lier and others while they still were active. But the Defensive Player of the Year Award didn’t arrive until 1983, with the NBA already revving in its fourth decade.

That’s when Sidney Moncrief won it. And then won it again.

Moncrief, the Milwaukee Bucks’ Hall of Famer, might seem an unlikely choice to excel beyond all others in such a grueling role. He was spindly, coltish, all knees and elbows as he veered, at 6-foot-3 and 180 pounds, around and through attacks still anchored by dinosaur big men who thrashed in the paint.

“Moncrief does everything you’re supposed to do on defense and doesn’t take any shortcuts,” Boston legend Larry Bird told Sports Illustrated in 1985. “Plus he does it every night.”

Bird first dealt with Moncrief in 1979 in Indiana State’s narrow escape against Arkansas in an NCAA regional final. Then he coped with him for years in the NBA’s Eastern Conference.

In assessing weekly the NBA’s top current defensive performers, it seemed worthwhile to go back to the foundation of the DPOY. Edited from a longer conversation, here is a brief Q&A with Moncrief, who lives in Texas these days and spends his time as an author and professional development coach. What did you think at the time, winning an award that was brand new in 1983?

Moncrief: I didn’t know how to react. I thought, ‘Maybe they didn’t know what to look for and just gave it to Moncrief.’ But when I got it the second time, I figured it must be something I’m doing right.

So your defense, and getting recognized, was a source of pride?

Especially the fact I was a guard. Back then, most defensive acclaim went to big players who blocked shots. Or players who had a high number of steals. And I was neither.

Where did your defensive focus come from?

Oliver B. Elders [Moncrief’s coach at Hall High in Little Rock, Ark.] pulled me aside one day – I was scoring a lot of points – and showed me film. I was horrible on defense. That got my attention. Then I played for coach Eddie Sutton, and we’d practice for three hours, all defense. Made you tougher. Then when I got to the Bucks I had Don Nelson and [assistant] John Killilea and they taught me the NBA way.

Most top defenders credit their teammates and their coaches’ systems. But the award does go to an individual. What made you so good defensively?

I had versatility, could guard one, two or three. I could anticipate pretty well. Quick feet, good hands, all those things came into play. And just making it a priority. Like Michael Jordan did when he decided to and won the award [in 1988] too.

Like Jordan, your defense didn’t seem to drain your offense. In the five seasons from 1981-82 through 1985-86 you were All-Defensive picks, you averaged 21.0 points, 5.8 rebounds, 4.7 assists, shot 50.3% and went to five All-Star games.

Traditionally, a “great basketball player” has been a guy who can score points. That’s usually how they define MVPs, how much money you’re paid and so much more. In my mind, you could never be a great basketball player unless you played both ends.

Whom do you recall as top defenders among your peers?

Michael Cooper and Dennis Johnson were two extremely good ones. Dennis had good feet – not necessarily quick feet – long arms and he could anticipate. Cooper was tough, quick feet and could guard a number of positions.

Joe Dumars played it so well using his body and his mind. Probably one of the best defenders in history was Dennis Rodman. He could guard [all positions], had extremely quick feet and was 6-7 with long arms. And I cannot forget Bobby Jones because of his length and size and quickness.

How about today’s best?

I don’t follow as much. But Giannis [Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee’s 2020 DPOY winner] certainly stands out. He can guard the basketball and he actually rebounds and blocks shots, too. I look for the guys who do it every night, not just when they’re matched up with a great offensive player. But it’s so different now, because we don’t really have players now who punish you inside.

It’s not just the MVP Ladder that’s been shaken by multiple-week injuries to Joel Embiid and LeBron James. They previously held rungs here, too, before heading to the trainer’s room. Meanwhile, here are the Top 5 this week on the 2020-21 Defensive Player Ladder:

(All stats through Sunday, March 21)

1. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz

Last week’s Ladder: 2

Gobert blocks 9 shots vs. Bulls

Rudy Gobert was active around the rim in Utah's win on Monday.

Gobert moves back into a familiar spot, climbing over Ben Simmons for his body of work this season but with a couple of specific boosts. First, he had a terrific response to Simmons chirping again (see below) about his own defensive prowess. “To me, it’s about impact,” Gobert told reporters Sunday. “It’s not about being cute. It’s not about looking good. It’s not about narratives. It’s not about having a big name. It’s about coming out every single night, trying to grind defensively and have that impact on the game.” Second, did you see what Gobert did Monday night? He blocked nine Chicago shots, to go with 21 points and 10 rebounds to narrowly miss a triple-double. The Bulls shot 41% overall, including 6-of-26 on 3-pointers.

2. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers

Last week’s Ladder: 1

Ben Simmons Defensive Highlights

Check out the best defensive moments from Ben Simmons this season.

As an individual defender, with versatility to guard multiple positions, no one in the league is better this season. On that, we agree with Simmons when he said over the weekend: ““No disrespect to Rudy at all, he is a great shot blocker, defender, but he’s not guarding one through five, he is guarding fives and probably big fours. … You can’t tell him to go guard Kawhi [Leonard] or Paul [George] or guard a point guard.” Gobert’s rebuttal appears above. It’s worth noting too that matchup time doesn’t necessarily mean winning time. When Simmons guarded Giannis Antetokounmpo for 8 minutes and 4 seconds Thursday, the Milwaukee star shot 2-of-8 with four turnovers and no assists. But what about the other 35 minutes Antetokounmpo played? He scored 32 points with 15 rebounds and shot 13-of-22 overall in the Bucks’ overtime victory.

3. Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers

Last week’s Ladder: 3

Turner was active in Miami over the weekend, blocking five shots in each of Indiana’s two victories there in barely 48 hours as the Heat shot a combined 42.3%. The NBA’s blocked shot leader is averaging 4.26 swats in games Indiana wins, 2.65 in its losses. Other stats: The Pacers are five points better defensively (107.1 vs. 112.1) when Turner is on the court. And he makes opposing shooters’ accuracy drop by 6.5% when he’s the nearest defender.

4. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

Last week’s Ladder: N/A

You had to know it was only a matter of time before last season’s Defensive Player of the Year and a three-time All-Defensive selection grabbed a rung here for the first time in 2020-21. Milwaukee ranked ninth in defensive efficiency (110.0) when its current 12-1 streak began; since then, it ranks second (105.8). This, even as the Bucks are testing new schemes and working in new personnel from Jrue Holiday to P.J. Tucker. Antetokounmpo and his team haven’t been as good on the defensive end as they were in 2019-20 but there is this: Roll men are generating 0.91 points per possession vs. the Greek Freak compared to 1.02 against Embiid, 1.26 against Gobert and 1.29 against Turner.

5. T.J. McConnell, Indiana Pacers

Last week’s Ladder: N/A

Counting stats might have been eclipsed by advanced metrics for the slide-rule set, but when you lead the league both in steals per game (1.85) and total steals (72) and in deflections (3.9 per) and loose balls recovered (1.4, 1T), and you’re doing it all off the bench in 25.4 minutes per game, that’s good for a Defensive Player rung. Along with this from Indianapolis Star beat scribe J. Michael on the feisty reserve point guard: “If the NBA had an All-Madden Team, T.J. McConnell would be a lock. If it had the pound-for-pound rankings such as boxing … McConnell would be champ. He’s significantly shorter than everyone else. He’s paid significantly less, too. … There’s what he does that is seen, such as his steals and assists, and then there’s the unseen. McConnell injects energy into everyone’s veins. Play up to his speed or get left behind.”

The Next Five

(In no particular order)

Jakob Poeltl, San Antonio Spurs

  • Foes shoot 6.8% worse when he’s guarding them.

Mikal Bridges, Phoenix Suns

  • Charged with thwarting top scorers in Suns’ improving defense.

Matisse Thybulle, Philadelphia 76ers

  • Pesters guys into 37.7% shooting, 34% from mid-range. [ | Players Defense Dash Overall]

Luguentz Dort, Oklahoma City Thunder

  • Keys OKC D that contests shots, stifles fast breaks and limits free throws.

Mike Conley, Utah Jazz

  • Yielding 0.76 PPP (tied with Fred Van Vleet) vs. ball handlers on PnR.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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